Clarence Valley Independent

The ovaries have it

Ovarian cancer survivor Denise Gillies wants to raise awareness about the dangers of ovarian cancer and motivate people to support fundraising for research. Image: Geoff Helisma

Geoff Helisma |

A nationwide study commissioned by Ovarian Cancer Australia (OVC) has revealed that more than 40 per cent of Australians are unable to identify the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer is the most lethal women’s cancer – approximately 1,600 women are diagnosed annually and more than 1,000 affected women die each year.

Only 46 per cent of women survive beyond five years after diagnosis, in comparison with breast cancer’s five-year survival rate of 91 per cent and cervical cancer’s 73 per cent.

On February 11, OVC launched a campaign to raise awareness of ovarian cancer; for example, there is no early detection test for ovarian cancer and 36 per cent of Australians incorrectly believe cervical screening tests (Pap smear) can detect ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer survivor Denise Gillies is a hard working woman, always has been. The 71-year-old Yamba real estate agent says she “sailed through chemo – cooking, cleaning, etcetera” – by setting herself “little projects to do around the house every day”.

That was until she was about two thirds of the way through her once-a-week for 18 weeks chemotherapy treatments. “The poison in my body took over,” she says.

However, despite suffering neuropathy, a common chemotherapy side effect, since the sessions were completed in late October 2018, Denise is now back working at her business, looking towards the future – but not just her own.

She wants to play a role in raising awareness of the deadly affliction. “I’m doing this interview purely because I want to start much more discussion on this,” she declares.

Denise tells her story.

“I’ve had the same gynaecologist for 20-odd years, so I phoned him, because I had a little scare with cancer of the cervix back in 1999, which just threw up some abnormal cells. I went to him in July 2017 and he did all of the checks that he normally does. Nothing showed up. He said, ‘I don’t think we’ve got a problem.’

About eight weeks later, still feeling like something wasn’t quite right, Denise made another appointment to see her gynaecologist before holidaying in New Zealand.

“He suggested that we bring the urologist in while I was under anaesthetic [in day surgery] so he could check my bladder. Nothing showed up, so I went off to New Zealand in October. When I came back I phoned the gynaecologist, still not quite happy. He said, ‘I can see it is troubling you Denise, I have a colleague who is above me – I’d like you to see him.

“I had no pain but I was losing weight and there were was frequency of going to the bathroom, which is a real sign for this problem. I’d just put it down to old age and my bladder getting weaker.”

Denise worked through “a very busy Christmas holiday period” before seeing the surgeon in May 2018. “He suggested everything was fine, ‘but at your age you don’t need your ovaries, Denise, so we’ll whip those out’ – that’s keyhole surgery.

“It was set for June 12. When I woke up I was feeling really great. He said, ‘That’s good, because I haven’t done anything, because you have a much bigger problem.’”

Two days later Denise spent nine hours on the operating table undergoing major surgery.

“When I came out of anaesthetic, he gave me a briefing, but he didn’t know the [biopsy] results [yet]. I was in hospital for a fortnight recovering and, on discharge, the gynaecologist said, ‘I believe your body is cancer-free, but if you were a family member of mine, I’d want you to have 18 rounds of chemo, once a week – that started on July 17.

“When I was told the diagnosis was ovarian cancer I was fairly ignorant about it and I was also horrified to think I’d had my Pap smear every year, sometimes twice a year, because I’d always thought the Pap smear would cover ovarian cancer.

“I think we’re doing the same as what we did with breast cancer 25 years ago. We didn’t talk about breast cancer, and we certainly didn’t talk about prostate cancer like we do today. We need money for ovarian cancer research.

“I want to make women aware because it is extremely difficult to pick up and it moves so quickly.”

Inspiration to actively raise awareness about ovarian cancer came about unexpectedly. Unable to sleep after her second chemotherapy session, Denise was watching television. A repeat of three-time Olympian swimmer and OCA patron Nicole Livingstone’s speech to the National Press Club was screening. Ovarian cancer killed Livingstone’s mother, Karen.

“She had three or four women with her and they were trying to bring awareness to women and the ovarian cancer cause,” says Denise. “Hopefully, as the year goes on, I can have a fundraising activity, to encourage people to talk to their doctors.”

Denise says that her friends rallied around her while undergoing treatment and that she’d “had amazing medical support”.

“I’d go home and there would be bunches of flowers on the front patio. There would be everything from garlic to ginger to head scarves. These people didn’t even leave their names. Others would leave cards wishing me well. It was great to have that support because it helps you to get by.

“I have no complaints, from my local doctor to the surgeon, the carers and the hospital. The oncology department was amazing – it was great to know I could pick up the phone if I had any enquiry. They just became part of my weekly treatment; their care and passion towards their patients is unbelievable. And my young surgeon is a superstar; his hours were ridiculous.

“February was ovarian cancer month, but when you see a teal-coloured ribbon – we’re trying to raise awareness.”

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